Jack Antonoff on his jam-packed 2017 and the Taylor Swift song he calls a 'hint at the future'
No artist shaped the sound of pop music in 2017 more than Jack Antonoff — if only because Jack Antonoff practically was the sound of pop music in 2017. Whether he was putting out music with his solo project, Bleachers, or writing with artists such as Taylor Swift, Lorde, and St. Vincent, the prolific producer was all over your favorite records this year. (Not to mention all over EW’s Best Albums of 2017 list.) Below, Antonoff — one of EW’s 2017 Entertainers of the Year — looks back on his jam-packed year and how he found the time to get it all done.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In addition to releasing your second album as Bleachers, you were a producer on the Lorde album, the St. Vincent album, half of the Taylor Swift album, a few songs on Pink’s album — do you need a nap?
JACK ANTONOFF: I wouldn’t work if I didn’t have a reason to work. There were times when I would be working on one thing and then [another opportunity] would come up, and I’d be on the phone with my manager like, “How is this possible?!” He’d say it didn’t matter — I had to do it because it was really important to me to do it. The way I see the past year, which is really more like the past 18 months, is that I was lucky enough to have a number of things worth doing. I didn’t do it because I wanted to fill my time. I did it because that’s just how life works. If I was going to do something that would inspire me less, I might be able to control it more, but I don’t think this kind of work is meant to be controlled.
You worked on many of these projects at the same time. What role does cross-pollination play in your process?
The influence is deep, even if the influence is to make sure that [a project is] not influencing something. When you work on a project, there’s this general toolbox of sounds and ideas that you’re calling from to make sure it’s cohesive. You make different identities: I remember when I was doing the St. Vincent album, there was a big modular identity, where a lot of drums were coming out of a modular sense. When I was doing the Bleachers album, there was this live-drum identity, where I was sampling a lot of live drums I was recording. It’s very easy to keep those separate.
The part where there is a thread is what you learn from people. None of them sound like each other, because what I’ve learned from other people isn’t something specific that I then go and apply. It’s more that you watch someone be very open, and then you’re more inspired to be open. I can hear the similarities because I think to myself, “Oh, I wrote that song because I was working with this person, and it gave me courage to access that [idea] in me.” I see the thread, but it’s not something that’s necessarily obvious to other people. I don’t have specific sounds that I like.
You don’t think there’s a Jack Antonoff sound? I remember listening to reputation for the first time and thinking during some songs, “This has Jack’s fingerprints all over it.”
There are definitely things that come up over and over, but it’s funny, I don’t hear it. I never hear it in the moment, like, “That so me!” I’ve heard other people say that. I’m fascinated by it. I wish I could hear it. It’s like when my dad says something and someone says it reminds them of me — I don’t get that either. But that’s the nice thing about the way I work: It’s not really limited to what’s in the studio. I go out there and find a lot of different sounds and bring them back. I see it like a bear hibernating: I’ll go to Atlanta or I’ll go to California and just work with people and get sounds, get ideas. I hear the way they play drums and take it back to my little studio at home. I went out to Atlanta and messed around with the Organized Noize guys for a while. They’re idols of mine, and I just went to the studio with them for three days and just f—ed around. And then I took all that joy and brought it home, and I had all these new sounds that inspired me. So I never feel like I’m at a loss, needing to reuse sounds over and over, because that to me is the most fun part of my job.
What weird sound or instrument are you most proud of sneaking into a song this year?
There’s a song on the Lorde album called “Hard Feelings,” and there’s this synth at the end that sounds like metal bending. I’m really proud of that. Another one on the Lorde album, her and I found this sound of a tiger roaring embedded in some old synthesizer. Lorde and I put that right before the bridge on “Sober.” It’s so random, but it’s not just a cool production trick. The song would be less without it. And then on the Bleachers record, there’s this modular synth on “All My Heroes” that sits behind the whole song, and it just literally sounds like sadness in the most killer way.
You work mostly from your home studio. Can you feel how big and epic your songs are in such a small space?
It’s actually a big part of the process, and it’s part of the reason why I love working at home so much. One thing I know about the records I make is that they sound like they’re dreaming of being big, but they’re not actually big. I never want to lose that. I know producers who rent out 25,000-person arenas and listen to the way sh– sounds on those speakers. It makes total sense, if you think about it. But I’m more effective coming from a place of “Imagine if everyone heard this!” not “Everyone is going to hear this.”
What were the reputation sessions like? When I listen to “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” I imagine you guys having a blast in the studio. But other songs, like “Call It What You Want To,” make me want to see if Taylor needs a hug.
It’s an intense album, and that’s what I care about. In the course of a day — in the course of two minutes — you can feel like you can conquer the world, or you can feel like the biggest piece of garbage that ever existed. An album or song should feel that way too. It should have the whole gamut of what it actually is like for the artist to be alive at that moment. The sessions were just her and I. She would come over to my apartment, and we would talk and eat and talk more, and the things we talked about turned into songs. She is great at remembering the heart and soul of the process. Some people forget it — sometimes something works and everyone starts to rewire it. But she’s really great at knowing what it’s about: talking about what the hell is going on in your life and somehow finding a way to take that exact emotion and make a song out of it. That was the theme of those sessions: “Let’s just tell this story, whatever that story is, because that’s the whole point.”
Would you start from scratch or would she show up with ideas and demos?
1989 was different. I would send her tracks, and she would write to that. We did reputation sitting in the room together. There were lyric ideas or things like that [that she would bring], but I would say the majority of it came from scratch. Things would just happen in the room. It was a special time.
The last song on the album, “New Year’s Day,” doesn’t sound like anything else on the record. Was there ever a conversation about taking this stripped-down song and building it up into something more in line with the rest of the album?
No, no, no. Not only that, but it was the quickest [song to record]. If you listen to the piano on that record, you can hear me moving around. You hear things clicking. Those are the “scratch takes” — we did that very quickly. It came out in that sort of goofy Hollywood version of how music is written, where it comes out of moments of inspiration. Part of the process is you do that [scratch take], and then you do it for real. But we just sat there: That’s the song. You want a song to sound like itself. You don’t want to get the perfect tune. You don’t want to get the absolute perfect vocal take or the perfect panning or compression. You just want it to sound like itself. You want to feel like you’re home within the song. That theory works for “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails, and that theory works for Joni Mitchell. It has nothing to do with genre, or how loud or soft it is. You just want the song to feel like itself. I don’t know what we would be thinking if we tried to f— with it. I’m so proud of it because, personally, I think it’s some sort of hint at the future.
In the past you’ve expressed some discomfort with the idea of being this juggernaut pop hitmaker. Given the success you’ve had this year — and the fact that the other main reputation producers, Max Martin and Shellback, are big juggernaut pop hitmakers — do you still feel that way?
I’m not the anti-anyone, and I have great respect for all different ways of doing it. But my way of doing it is: I would never write a song for someone. I would write a song with someone. I’m either making Bleachers records, which is me alone in a room, or I’m working with someone else and doing a song together. I would never sit down and say, “Okay, I’m going to write so-and-so a song,” because that, to me, violates the great concept of art. How could you know where that person is going, when the only information you have is where they’ve been?
I’ve always had no clue about how that part of the industry works and, truthfully, no interest. Why would I want to sit down and write a Rihanna song? I don’t want to write a Rihanna song. I don’t know what Rihanna wants. She knows what she wants. I would sit down and work with her, because then you could build together and understand what someone wants to do and how to bring it to life. There’s this idea that, out in California, there are these factories of music, and there are. But I have nothing to do with that, and just because I’ve made a lot of records recently, it shouldn’t be assumed that I do. The records I make are made in one room with one other person.
People should recognize that just because it’s pop and just because you might hear it on the radio or see it at the Grammys doesn’t mean it was handcrafted for the public to like. In my space, we just craft it to be something that we think is worth standing behind. It’s not a diss on anyone’s process. It’s not what I do. It’s a different industry.
I don’t pull up Spotify playlists. I don’t look at what’s happening on the charts. I wasn’t in L.A. trying to write pop songs over and over again. I was just writing my songs, and then when “We Are Young” happened, I had a door in [to writing with other artists]. I learned a great lesson from “We Are Young,” which is that it didn’t sound like the radio or mainstream at the time, so any bit of success I’ve ever had has come from me just doing me.
I want to ask you about touring this Bleachers album. Your write these very heavy songs about dealing with loss, but when you play them live, the crowd sings along and reacts as if they’re celebrations.
We are celebrating. We’re celebrating feeling. The worst thing in life is when you don’t feel. You’ve seen it: You’ve been to a funeral, it’s not all weeping — there are people who have big laughs. I’m celebrating having been through something. It’s worth celebrating to me. That is the connection.
The tour has been the best. I’ve never enjoyed touring more in my life. Maybe it’s because it’s the second Bleachers album, but I feel like we’re starting at such a higher emotional place. The band and the audience and I get in the room, and there’s just an intensity, and every night you have the ability to build on it. It’s a wave that you can ride. Sometimes it’s tears, and sometimes it’s screaming. [But everyone is] there for the same reason. Maybe it’s a lot of what’s going on in the world and the way people communicate and the way everyone defines themselves by what they hate these days, but there’s just something about getting into a room with a bunch of people. It’s really pure, and it’s a big part of what’s keeping my head up these days.
Did bringing your childhood bedroom on tour do for you what you hoped it would?
It was for everyone else, it wasn’t for me. The way I saw it was, I wanted to make this big absurd gesture about “moving on.” I wrote this whole album about everything I’ve been through and how to move on without taking your whole world with you — ‘cause you can’t, you’d get too heavy. So I thought, “Well, what an amazing metaphor for that, [bringing along] the literal space I’ve lived my life in and wrote all these songs in and letting people ingest this album in there. From the fan perspective, it was one of the greatest things I ever did, I think.
I shared a really big part of myself with people. I’d be soundchecking in the venue and look outside and there would be kids in my room listening to the album lying in my bed. It was a beautiful, beautiful thing. And it was small. Only a couple thousand people got to see it. Now it’s gone, and that was the whole point. I loved the rapid speed with which things can reach people these days, but that shouldn’t be everything. Certain things should exist in legend. I took the bedroom out on one tour, and if you saw it, you saw it. It was about that moment, and that moment is over.
There’s no bedroom anniversary tour in 20 years.
And I think you need that. Not everything is meant to be monetized, not everything is meant to be mass-produced. Nowadays, there’s a lot of, “That’s a great idea, we should do this and that and make it an immersive experience and get this person to tie into it.” From the very start I was like, “No, no nothing. We’re going to lose money on this, and that’s fine, but it’s strictly an art project. If people think it’s goofy, that’s a bummer. If they get it, that will be really beautiful. But this isn’t going to be so-and-so’s exclusive.” It was what it was.